Young Classics Update

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Throughout Mercedes' history, their coachbuilt coupes have all eventually achieved some level of collectible status. Have the 126 series coupes aged well enough to be collected today? We think their time has come.

Young Classics
Enter the SEC

When Mercedes Classic Germany announced their Young Classics program in early 2011,  it seemed there was more momentum in Germany for these newly crowned ‘Young Classics’ than in the states. 123 series diesel prices, particularly for wagons, were on the upswing in the states but 107 series SL prices had been stagnant for a few years and 114/115 sedans/coupes were failing to arouse much interest.

Also mentioned in last year’s Young Classic proclamation were the 126 coupes. In fact, Mercedes touted the entire 126 coupe production run from 1981 through 1991 as emerging collectibles. Understandably, any original manufacturer is generally out ahead of the masses when touting one of its earlier products as newly collectible. However, we’re on board with Mercedes-Benz not only regarding the SEC but any 126 series car, coupe or sedan.

126 Overview

Let’s have a quick look at this series of Mercedes. It’s safe to say that Mercedes longs for the period from 1986-1991 when all other manufacturers were chasing the Silver Star’s well established overall build quality, used market resale values and stellar JD Power survey ratings. I wouldn’t hesitate to call this era a post-war Golden Age for Mercedes production cars and the 126 series models led the way.

I’ll parse the 126 production run slightly and ignore any 1981-1983 380 variant as unacceptable due to the many shortcomings of the M116 engine. North America received the 300SE/SEL, 300SD/SDL, 420SEL, 500SEL/SEC, 560SEL/SEC during the 1984-1991 period we suggest focusing on.  Excellent, low mileage examples of any variant would be interesting. We’ll cover the diesels and sedans another time.

US model 500SEC reveals handsome if sober profile with crisp sheetmetal details, 14" wheels and grey fluted side cladding. The SEC became the gentleman's express and was the most expensive model available. Fumbling for the seatbelt was eliminated by electric belt extenders. With all windows down, the elegant pillarless shape shows to its fullest. Standard ride height should be dropped an inch or two for a more harmonious side profile.

Elite Young Classic
The SEC at a glance

The SEC in 5.0 liter and 5.6 liter variants were the most stylish and most expensive 126 chassis with the end-of -series 1991 560SEC listing new for a whopping $82k. Lavishly equipped for the North American market, SECs historically offered few options. The early 5 liter cars (1984/1985 US) date themselves with 14″ wheels and less than harmonious fluted grey (regardless of body color) lower side cladding. Power for the 5.0 liter cars was 184hp which seems paltry compared to the later 5.6 liter car’s 238hp, and the extra muscle is immediately felt when hustling a 560 down the road.

“The car is incredibly quiet at maximum speed. It’s very comfortable and the steering is dead positive, only needing a bit of correction coming into the quartering wind along the straight.”

The 1984/85 cars are simpler technically as well, lacking the rear self-leveling hydropneumatic chambers found on all 560 variants. All US model SECs feature leather trim (velour was a rarely ordered no charge option), anti theft alarms, power seatbelt extenders, ABS brakes, burl walnut wood trim, power door/trunk/gas filler locks and power windows. 560s were fitted with limited slip differentials and ABS/SRS were standard as were heated front seats. A passenger airbag arrived in 1989 and late series cars had more attractive and comfortable seat pleating. SRS (driver’s airbag) arrived as an option in the 1985 SEC. The short list of 560SEC options included a power rear window shade, electro-pneumatically adjusted orthopedic seats and for those of more substantial stature, reinforced front seat frames…

This studio shot shows a Euro (small bumper) 560SEC and reveals the slight nose up attitude characteristic of all 560SECs but not the 5.0 liter earlier cars. My presumption is the self leveling rear suspension is responsible for this tail squat. This is one clean, enduring design. Finding good examples today is a puzzle.

Buying an SEC

Which is the rarest 126 coupe? Throughout Mercedes history ‘S’ class coupes were never built in significant numbers and the production figures of the 126 coupes reflect this. Production for 1984 and 1985 500SECs was 1,608 and 1,667 respectively. US production of 560 SECs never exceeded 2,200 annually and I believe 1991 was the lowest production year but could not find data beyond 1990’s production of 1,183.

Which SEC should you buy? I won’t discourage you against any particular variant (aside from the 380SECs) and will remind all of the ethos of Young Classic collecting – Buy the highest caliber, lowest mileage example available. A hobbling, 198k mile 560SEC with rigid rear suspension, collapsed front seats, cracked dash and perished burlwood will only cause you heartache. Substantial reconditioning is not an option due to the still comparatively low values – a serious impediment for most Young Classics. Buy a great one or one that has tolerable needs. My dream SEC? I suppose it would be a mint low mileage 1989 Euro 5.0 liter with US smog devices removed to free as many of the 252hp (DIN) as possible. This car likely does not exist in the States so an untouched, low mileage 1991 560SEC would be just fine.

The September 1985 Road & Track article on the 500SEC sums things up quiet nicely after a speed test with a new500 SEC; “You’ve got to be fairly strong to keep this throttle glued to the floor all the time; it’s pretty heavy. The car is incredibly quiet at maximum speed. It’s very comfortable and the steering is dead positive, only needing a bit of correction coming into the quartering wind along the straight. […] The seats are firm but comfortable in the Germanic fashion. It feels like a large car, which it is, but nevertheless goes fairly quickly, and, again, the lack of noise is remarkable.” Indeed.

Young Classics you can buy:

It's not an SEC but this 1988 300SE is hard to ignore. We're quite comfortable describing this 34k mile short wheelbase, six cylinder 126 sedan as a 'museum quality' Young Classic. Every square inch is mind boggling perfection including the undercarriage. Update: My newsletter editing was interrupted by our good friend F. Aram who demanded to buy the car. At $12k it was a quite a bargain. We're hunting for spectacular 126 coupes/sedans.

123 diesel sedans have been gaining status over the last year. Our 96k mile 1985 (49 state non-trap oxidizer car) 300D-T is a nice find. With gorgeous paint and coachwork, spotless original interior and good paperwork, it's an excellent value. Contact us for more details: 650-343-7980 or


Roy Spencer, editor
Photography from Daimler Media, and Mercedes-Benz of Oklahoma.


Please comment on this article below.

10 Responses to “Young Classics Update”

  1. by C A Swingle on February 3rd, 2012 1:23 pm

    Nice write-up on the SEC’s. I’m eyeing a very low milage 1985 500SEC currently; is there really that much of a performance difference between the 500 and the 560? I’ve heard it both ways: “the 500 is a little lighter and is almost as sporty”, or “the 500 is absolutely anemic compared to the 560.”

  2. by Pete Engel on February 4th, 2012 10:00 am

    Nice summary article on the W126 coupes. A real classy looking car. There seems to be more interest now in these “Young Classics”.

  3. by Roy Spencer on February 4th, 2012 10:34 am

    To CA Swingle.

    Thanks for the note. While my books note the 500SEC weighing the same as a 560SEC, I feel a US model 560SEC will weigh slightly more than a 500. The large power /torque difference should result in the 560 being quicker but it’s been many years since I’ve driven a healthy 500SEC for comparison. Both will be rewarding cars to drive but the 560 will feel more muscular. Let us know if you don’t buy the SEC you mention as we may be interested.

    Roy Spencer

  4. by Gerry Van Zandt on February 4th, 2012 11:17 am

    US models of the 560SEC were generally optioned to such a high degree that they will significantly outweigh non-US SECs — often by 100-200 lbs.

    As to performance differential — a US-spec 560 is always preferable to a US-spec 500 model. However, there are imported “gray-market” Euro 500s out there that came from the factory with 240HP — 2HP more than the US-spec 560!! And Euro-spec 560s were indeed available in 280 and 300HP variants, though these are generally not seen on US shores.

    A US-spec motor can be modified, with time and expense, to produce close to 300 HP by the addition of factory (Euro) cast-iron tri-y headers, more powerful cam profile, exhaust improvements, and bumping the compression of the motor a bit. The headers alone, bolted up to a US-spec motor, will give you a dyno-proven 20+ HP gain !!

    The main things to watch for with these cars is the dilapidated condition of what I call the “chassis rubber” — all rubber in the suspension system, the motor and transmission mount, subframe mounts, ball joints, brake support bushings, upper control arms, sway bar bushings, the list goes on. It will take several thousand dollars to make the suspension right on a tired SEC, but the results are 100% worth it.

    The other issue to worry about is the motor itself. The M117s (500/560) need to have their timing chain, tensioner and plastic guide rails replaced about every 125K miles. The guide rails in particular can get quite brittle with age and mileage, so should be watched very carefully. If a guide fails, quite often it will grenade your motor.

    Also, the head gaskets on the 560s tend to leak with time and age, leaking from the rear corners right onto the top of the exhaust manifold. This is clearly evidenced by a “burning oil” smell at stoplights inside the car. The cars also suffer from lubrication issues, particularly on the passenger side, that affect the camshafts.

    Lastly, the brass valve guides tend to wear out between 150 and 200K miles, necessitating the cylinder heads be removed and refurbished, new guides pressed in, etc. This is evidenced by oil consumption and blowing a small cloud of blue smoke at startup, or from a stoplight. It is caused by oil dropping down into the cylinders through the valve guides, along the valve stems.

    A cylinder head removal/refurbishment on these engines is about a $5-6K job, done correctly, parts and labor included. MB specs about 25 hours of labor for this job. The bottom end of these motors is bulletproof and should go for at least 400-500K miles, while the top end requires refurbishment every 150-200K miles depending on how bad the valve guides and head gaskets get. If a 560 motor is consuming more than about one quart of oil every 2-3,000 miles, then it’s just a matter of time until the heads must come off.

    All this being said, there is no better car out there than a properly sorted 560 coupe. It is a car that has unbelievable quality, luxury, durability and reliability, and the car commands respect. People know that it is a MERCEDES-BENZ, unmistakably.

    Good luck!

  5. by Jorge Koechlin on February 5th, 2012 7:23 pm

    Hi, a friend sent me your article since I just bought a nearly perfect 380SEC with about 120,000 Kms on it, and reading your article noticed the M116 engine ‘shortcomings’; would you be so kind please to where can I find more information, so to know what I am in for. It does overheat in traffic (have changed all things possible and still does it).

  6. Very nice article written with accurate facts provided. I still vividly remember the day my dad purchased his 1991 560SEC from Mercedes Benz of San Francisco on VanNess Avenue. Its specification was Polar White (147) with Grey interior. It was one of the last 126 series cars to be sold there as there were some W140 sedans in the showroom already. Since it was a recession back then, the dealer had to cut the price from $82K to $72K just to get rid of it since it was considered an “old” model. I still have the original catalog from the dealership. The options were ASR, rear roller blind and CD changer. That was it. Life was simply so simple back then versus today’s P1 or P2 package.

    We owned it for about 19 years racking up about 82K miles in 2010. Going by all service recommendations and requirements, we encountered overheating, engine idling, and the worst which eventually led us to sell the car, was rusting underneath the windscreen. 9 out of 10 SEC have this issue since the car is pillarless and when rubber becomes harden over years, water builds up around the seal which traps water. Eventually, one little paint chip or crack can lead to severe rust issue if not paid close attention.

    Thank you,

  7. by Dan Kelley on February 7th, 2012 4:08 pm

    I was fortunate last year to find a very clean two-owner ’88 560 SEC with 45,091 miles! I had been looking nationwide for over 2 1/2 years for a low mileage and affordable one, and tripped over this on Craigslist in December 2010. I had a pre-purchase inspection done at a dealer and other than a cracked windshield, the car needed nothing. The chromed alloy wheels are commonly an issue; not being triple-plated, they peel if scratched. Look for polished alloys if you can. Mine had the original spare tire, tool bag and first aid kit still in plastic, the jack had never been on the ground, and everything electrical worked. The car is a joy to drive, powerful, quiet and smooth as glass on a good road. You can feel the weight in the corners with oversteer, but it’s very manageable with throttle. I had it in for a 60,000 mile service a month after I bought it, since I wasn’t provided with a full maintenance history (I’m still accumulating service records) from new. New fluids and plugs/wires, and replacement windshield and it’s done. It’s not easy on gas; I’m gentle, but still get around 12.5 mpg around town; about 16 on the open road.
    There are a number of enthusiast websites, some with good buying advice, but the article’s advice is good: buy the best, lowest mileage coupe you can find, inspect it thoroughly and set aside maintenance money; it’s not cheap to operate or repair. Get good records and find out if the car was appreciated by the previous owner; if neglected, this can be a money pit.

  8. by William H. Bruun on February 26th, 2012 2:44 pm

    Mercedes-Benz…love at first sight! Sixteen and working on my 56′ Chevy with a balanced/blueprinted 301, our neighbor pulled in next door in his New Silver Gullwing Coupe! It’s been Mercedes for a long, long time; have owned/driven most of the mid to late 70’s-late 80’s gas and diesel cars. We own 2x W126’s, a Silver 3.8 litre Sedan, a 617-5 cylinder 300SD turbodiesel, and are in the process of buying a 1988 560SEC! For what it’s worth, the W126 is the most beautiful, well-built, long lasting Mercedes. We have enjoyed the 380SE (with it’s bad revue’s) and found it reliable, and surprisingly quick for a big body car. I’m going to think more about running part WVO (well filtered, and de-watered) 80/20 or 60/40 Diesel fuel in the future. Go ahead, I welcome any responses. The Coupe was owned by a MB person, who has maintained it ‘by the book’. I’ve seen many higher mileage 560’s at ‘Better Car Service’, and the owner James, says the one (Sedan, Long wheelbase) at 400K+ miles, is good for at least another 200K miles. Taking care of your Mercedes-Benz is the key to having it a long time. Due diligence in maintaining it’s systems will keep you on the road happily, and provide the naysayers a great example of how well built these 126’s really are. I’m a retired/disabled former Radio Broadcast Manager, who lost his career (and ability to walk for two years) because of one of Florida’s older driver’s, who ran a red light. If I was in a Mercedes instead of my wife’s Honda, things would be different. So, for a variety of reason’s, it’s Mercedes-Benz forever. Your thoughts?

  9. by Curt Ramsey on May 28th, 2013 12:19 am

    Mr. Spencer;
    I am currently considering a 1991 560 SEC with 76,000 miles. It is in impeccable shape, has all maintenance records, is a two owner “california” car, and the price is $17,000.00
    I have owned a 560 SEC in the past and love the car, but am somewhat hesitant about the price. Do you believe that a DEC as I have described could be worth that much? I was thinking it should sell around $14k to $$15k.
    Your thoughts please?
    Also, it is Black on Black (beautiful to me!!!)

  10. by Roy Spencer on May 28th, 2013 9:38 am

    Hi Curt,

    I tend to agree with your price assessment although it’s somewhat unfair for me to comment on the car without inspecting it. If the mileage was below 50k, it would certainly be worth closer the the seller’s asking price but only if all areas of the car (interior trim, undercarriage, trunk area, history, functionality etc.) were in order. If it shows any of the typical 126 V8 weak spots (leaking left head gasket, climate control issues, dying rear self-leveling system, power seatbelt extension issues etc.), the car is priced too high.

    Keep in mind that the seller has somewhat of a captive audience due to the fact there aren’t 76k mile black/black end of production SECs around every corner. Give it a close look from a functionality, technical and cosmetic standpoint and if everything looks correct, go for it. Our “560SL Bootcamp” article has many observations relating to problem areas that directly relate to the SEC as well. The link is below:

    Good luck with it!
    Roy Spencer

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